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Hotel York

Listen to “Hotel York” here:


What I like best about the Hotel York is its sign. Faded, over-sized and garish, it is a sign that tells a nuanced story. It is most definitely a sign worth crossing the street for.

Which, of course, I did.

I had set out for a walk, alone but for my camera. The day would not last much longer now. Sycamore leaves huddled in gutters and crunched beneath my soles. The light was dying. Soon street lamps would switch on but their over-anxious, electric cheer would only lay bare the emptiness of the streets. It was a short, chill winter Sunday in Buenos Aires. And it was coming to an end with neither frills nor fanfare.

The sign is mounted to the facade of a one-story building with an elegant arched doorway. The building is well-proportioned – like 99% of the buildings built in the early 1900s in this city. It seems the world was a much more aesthetic place back then when men wore suits and hats and the buildings had archways and ornaments. All along this street were buildings just like this one in varying states of disrepair and sometimes outright abandonment. Across the street, someone had torn one down – or it fell down – and in its place erected offices with a curtain wall of reflective, blue-green tinted glass.

The sign says “Hotel” but the premisis is nothing more than a boarding house where families from the provinces live while they get settled in the big city. Sometimes they never leave. It’s the sort of place you end up in if your wife kicks you out.

I couldn’t get over the sign and it’s hubris. It could have graced a much taller building, a real hotel. Boarding houses usually made do with an enameled plaque and this one had that too but in a cheap, plexiglass version. But whoever commissioned this sign expected throngs of families clamoring for their rooms.

After glancing up and down the street, I pulled my camera from my fanny pack. I crouched on the sidewalk. I stood in the street. I made myself taller trying to get the perfect angle, one that showed the blotched grandeur of the sign together with it’s hard-scrabble surroundings. In the end, I’m not sure I solved the photographic problem well. I never know until weeks later.

As I was crouching on the sidewalk, chasing the perfect angle, two young women, maybe 16 years old, walked past me, arm in arm, and turned into the doorway of the boarding house. They smiled at me, amused at my antics on the pavement, then looked at each other, as if they had a secret I would never know.

This was their home. This was where they slept in over-crowded rooms with their siblings, where they combed their long black hair and where they dreamed of a different, better life more like the one that the sign had promised.

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